Managing COVID-19 risks: Retail industry

Preventing and controlling employee exposure to COVID-19 in the retail industry.

Pandemic Orders and industry requirements are regularly updated

This guidance is correct as at time of publication, however, Victorian Minister for Health's Pandemic Orders and industry requirements are regularly updated. Readers of this guidance need to check the latest Victorian Pandemic Orders for applicability.

Restrictions apply across Victoria

Depending on your industry your workplace may:

  • be subject to restricted operations or industry specific obligations
  • be subject to COVID-19 vaccination requirements

It is mandatory for every Victorian business with on-site operations to have a COVIDSafe Plan. COVIDSafe plans should be reviewed and updated regularly.

COVID-19 restrictions in Victoria may be updated at any time. You must stay up to date with changes for your industry.

How are my occupational health and safety (OHS) obligations impacted by the restrictions?

There is no change to your obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) and Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations) as a result of the Pandemic Orders issued by the Victorian Minister for Health.

Preparation of a COVIDSafe Plan forms part of the development of a safe system of work. However, having a COVIDSafe Plan and complying with the Victorian Pandemic Orders does not necessarily mean you have complied with all of your duties under the OHS Act and OHS Regulations.

You must follow any Pandemic Orders that apply to how your business must operate, and ensure that you are meeting your obligations under the OHS Act. Employees must also comply with their duties under the OHS Act.

Transmission of COVID-19

Researchers are still learning about COVID-19, its long-term effects and emerging variants.

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by a coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that can result in mild to very severe illness and death.

The main way COVID-19 spreads is when a person with COVID-19 exhales droplets and/or aerosol particles containing the virus. This can happen when they breathe out, cough, sneeze, speak, shout or sing.

Exhaled droplets range in size. Large droplets settle out of the air faster than they evaporate. Small droplets remain suspended in the air for longer periods. Very fine droplets may contain the virus, and can stay suspended in the air for anywhere from minutes to hours. Small droplets and particles are often referred to as ‘aerosols’.

Transmission of COVID-19 can occur in a number of ways, and possibly in combination.

1. Airborne transmission

This occurs when a person inhales aerosols that may contain viral particles that are infectious.

While the risk of transmission is highest when close to an infectious person, air currents can disperse small droplets and particles over long distances. These may be inhaled by people who have not had face-to-face contact or been in the same space with the infectious person. Airborne transmission is more likely to occur in indoor or enclosed settings that are poorly ventilated, crowded, or both. In these kinds of settings, the virus may remain suspended in the air for longer and increase the risk of spread as people tend to spend longer periods in indoor settings.

2. Droplet transmission

Transmission occurs where exhaled droplets from a person with COVID-19 come into contact with another person's mucosal surfaces (nose, mouth or eyes). The risk of transmission is highest when close to the source, where the concentration of these droplets is greatest.

3. Contaminated surfaces transmission

People may also become infected by touching surfaces that have been contaminated by the virus, and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth without cleaning their hands.

COVID-19 and the retail industry

Workplaces in the retail industry include areas where employees interact with customers — putting them at risk of exposure to COVID-19. Employees may also work near other retail staff and have contact with external contractors.

Retail workplaces include:

  • vehicle dealerships (for example, motor vehicles, motorbikes, caravans and trailers, tyres and mechanical replacement parts)
  • petrol stations
  • supermarkets
  • specialized food stores (for example, butchers, green grocers, liquor stores)
  • homeware stores (for example, furniture, floor coverings, housewares and textile goods
  • electrical and electronic stores
  • hardware, building and garden supplies
  • recreation stores (for example, sporting, camping and fishing equipment)
  • clothing and footwear stores and other personal accessories
  • department stores
  • pharmacies
  • newsagents
  • antique and used goods dealers
  • florists

Under the OHS Act employers have a duty to provide and maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees, including independent contractors. This includes preventing risks to health, including psychological health, and safety associated with potential exposure to COVID-19.

Employees have a duty to take reasonable care of their own and others health and safety in the workplace. This includes cooperating with actions taken by their employer to comply with the OHS Act or Regulations.

Identifying risks

Employers must identify hazards and, if necessary, assess the level of risk to the health of employees from exposure to COVID-19 at their workplace. Employers must consult with health and safety representatives (HSRs), if any, and employees, so far as is reasonably practicable.

Risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the retail industry can arise from:

  • working near employees and contact with customers
  • contact with commonly touched surfaces, including counters, handrails, doors, cash registers, touch screens, phones, keyboards, scanners and EFTPOS terminals
  • sharing workplace amenities such as kitchens, lunchrooms, communal areas, change rooms, toilets, drink fountains and vending machines
  • contact with delivery drivers and other contractors attending the workplace
  • being an employee who is at greater risk of being very sick from COVID-19

Employers must do what is reasonably practicable to eliminate or reduce the psychological risks and hazards to employees at the workplace.

Psychosocial hazards that may arise from COVID-19 in a retail environment include:

  • exposure to violence and aggression
  • increased work demand
  • changed work arrangements
  • anxiety and fear
  • employment uncertainty

Controlling risks

Where a risk to health is identified at a workplace, employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, eliminate the risk. Where it is not possible to eliminate the risk, then the risk must be controlled, so far as is reasonably practicable.

The types of control measures required depends on the level of risk as well as the availability and suitability of controls for each workplace, including individual work areas.

Face masks in workplaces

Pandemic Orders made by the Victorian Minister for Health about face masks are in place across Victoria. For more information see the guidance Managing COVID-19 risks: Face masks in workplaces.

COVID-19 vaccinations in workplaces

COVID-19 vaccination is one control measure that can reduce the risk of COVID-19 in workplaces. This should be part of a suite of controls used to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in workplaces.

Consult with employees

Employers have a duty to consult with employees, independent contractors and any health and safety representatives (HSRs), so far as is reasonably practicable, on matters related to health or safety that directly affect, or are likely to directly affect them. This includes consultation on identifying hazards or risks and decisions about how to control risks associated with COVID-19.

The consultation should be conducted in accordance with any agreed consultation procedures.

Screening

Employers should implement an employee screening process to minimise the introduction of COVID-19 into the workplace. Employers should ask employees before they enter the workplace if they are currently subject to any Pandemic Order requirements (such as needing to isolate or quarantine), and instruct employees who have been in contact with confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 to follow Department of Health (DH) procedures.

Worker support payments

The Victorian Government is providing one-off payments to financially support Victorian workers, including parents and guardians, who are required to self-isolate or quarantine due to COVID-19.

Physical distancing

It is important to keep your distance from others. The following measures can assist with physical distancing:

  • maintain a physical distance of at least 1.5 metres from others where possible
  • display signs, install barriers and place stickers on the floor to help customers maintain physical distancing
  • optimise physical distancing in the layout of the workplace by reviewing entry and exit points, flow of staff and clients, and location of hand sanitiser
  • install screens of sufficient size at checkouts or service areas to prevent customers breathing or coughing into the employee's workspace
  • limit the number of people in the workplace as required by the density quotients set by the Victorian Minister for Health
  • where physical distancing cannot be followed for an activity, consider if that activity needs to continue for the business to operate. If the activity needs to continue then control the risks as much as possible (for example, by installing protective screens to separate employees and customers)
  • consider redesigning work areas or implementing controls to ensure employees are separated by a minimum of 1.5 metres and are also separated from customers, for example at service desks
  • provide employees information about financial support, where applicable

Under Pandemic Orders, workplaces may also be required to comply with particular density quotient rules.

Deliveries and other contractors attending the workplace

Consider the following measures to enable physical distancing between employees and delivery or other contractors attending the workplace:

  • cancel or postpone non-essential visits to the workplace
  • minimise the number of workers attending to deliveries and contractors
  • implement measures to manage the flow of traffic within the premises
  • make hand washing facilities or alcohol-based hand sanitiser available for employees after physically handling deliveries
  • clearly instruct contractors of hygiene and physical distancing requirements that are in place
  • use electronic versions of documents
  • set up alternatives to signatures. For example, a confirmation email or a photo of the loaded or unloaded goods might be accepted as proof of delivery or collection
  • if a signature is required, request the signer use their own pen or clean and sanitise shared pens between use

Ventilation

People in indoor environments, particularly in crowded or inadequately ventilated spaces, are at a higher risk of becoming infected with COVID-19. When someone infected with COVID-19 has been present, the virus may linger in poorly ventilated spaces or areas with stagnant air for a longer period of time.

Providing an adequate supply of fresh air (ventilation) to enclosed areas of a workplace dilutes the number of airborne virus particles and lowers transmission risk. Improving ventilation alone does not reduce the risk of transmission via droplets and contaminated surfaces. It needs to be considered as part of a suite of infection control measures.

Adequate ventilation can be achieved using natural or mechanical ventilation, or a combination of the two.

  • Natural ventilation is fresh air coming in through open windows, doors or air vents.
  • Mechanical ventilation means a method of forced or induced ventilation using mechanical air-handling systems that bring in fresh air from outside. It forms part of a building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system.

Note: Natural ventilation is dependent on variable local conditions (eg window opening size, weather conditions including wind speed and direction) and may not always be effective in quickly removing airborne virus particles.

Better ventilation can be achieved by:

  • increasing the rate that air is supplied
  • increasing the supply of fresh outdoor air
  • reducing or eliminating recirculated air in HVAC systems
  • improving filtration for air recirculated by HVAC systems if the ventilation rate is not compromised
  • regular maintenance of the HVAC system, including changing filters

Guidance on HVAC systems is available in AS1668.2:2012 The use of ventilation and air-conditioning in buildings, Part 2: Mechanical ventilation in buildings. Further information on HVAC systems and COVID-19 is available in World Health Organization (WHO) guidance Roadmap to improve and ensure good indoor ventilation in the context of COVID-19 (who.int).

In areas where it is not possible to maintain adequate ventilation and there is a high risk of transmission, portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtered air cleaners may be appropriate to be used to reduce the concentration of airborne virus particles and other aerosol contaminants. These units are not a substitute for ventilation. Employers should assess the risk and/or undertake a ventilation assessment to identify what ventilation strategies are appropriate for the space and whether an air cleaner is needed and consider operational placement and maintenance of these units.

Employers should work with the building's owner or manager to improve ventilation where possible. Engaging a suitably qualified person such as an occupational hygienist or a ventilation engineer to advise and assist should also be considered.

For more information about ventilation, see the following documents on the DH Infection prevention control (IPC) resources page:

  • COVID-19: Ventilation principles and strategies to reduce aerosol transmission in community and workplace settings.
  • Department of Health IPC Ventilation Policy.
  • Coronavirus (COVID-19) transmission from air-circulating, wind-blowing devices and activities.
  • Ventilation strategies to reduce COVID-19 infection, when used as per DH guidelines.

Employee hygiene

Employees have a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety at work. This includes practising good hygiene to reduce the risk of exposing others to COVID-19.

Employees should:

  • cover coughs and sneezes with their elbow or a tissue
  • immediately dispose of used tissues in a rubbish bin
  • wash hands for at least 20 seconds with detergent or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser
  • wash hands before and after eating, after coughing and sneezing, and after going to the toilet
  • clean and disinfect surfaces and shared equipment after use

Environmental cleaning

Cleaning the workplace is an effective way to reduce COVID-19 transmission.

Employers should:

  • implement a cleaning regime that includes using a disinfectant with antiviral properties to clean the workplace more often than usual
  • provide suitable hand sanitising facilities at entrances to the workplace
  • provide employees with suitable cleaning materials
  • provide employees and customers with tissues and bins
  • train workers in proper hygiene practices and the use of workplace controls
  • implement drive through window or curb side pick-up where possible
  • establish pick-up and drop-off collection points where possible, rather than passing goods from hand to hand
  • display signs asking customers to only touch items they want to buy
  • limit customer handling of merchandise, for example, through different display methods, new signage or rotation, or cleaning of high-touch stock
  • engage cleaners or train employees to clean regularly (at least daily)
  • clean frequently touched surfaces, such as counters, handrails, doors, cash registers, touch screens and phones, keyboards and EFTPOS terminals, using appropriate detergent solutions where possible. Once cleaned, equipment should ideally be disinfected regularly using appropriate disinfectant solutions
  • clean trolleys and hand baskets after use clean protective screens separating employees and customers

Cleaning needs to be conducted in accordance with the DH information on cleaning and disinfecting for workplaces.

Change rooms

Employers should implement measures in change rooms to minimise the risk of spreading the infection to both staff and other customers, as far as it is reasonably practicable. Measures could include the following:

  • discourage customers from trying on clothes where possible and offer a more flexible returns policy
  • consider a dedicated hanging rack at the exit to the change rooms and delay returning these items to the shop floor until at least the next morning
  • require customers to re-hang unwanted clothes on designated racks
  • remind staff to exercise good hygiene after handling clothes, door handles, hangers and other items
  • limit contact between customers and employees during fitting, for example by suspending fitting assistance
  • limit the number of change rooms available to minimise cleaning and to avoid crowding in open areas
  • display signs that ask customers to keep 1.5 metres apart in any queue
  • limit the number of customers allowed in the change area at a time to enable physical distancing
  • remove seating from in and around the change rooms
  • encourage customers to have family and friends wait outside the change room
  • provide hand sanitisers at the changing area entrance for use before trying on clothes
  • manage the flow of customers in and out of the change rooms to allow enough time for cleaning to take place on a regular basis

Adequate and accessible facilities

Employers must ensure that employees have access to appropriate facilities to support physical distancing and good hygiene.

It is important that:

  • employees have access to adequate handwashing facilities in good working order and clean and safe to use all facilities including washrooms, change rooms, toilets and bathrooms are regularly cleaned and well stocked with items such as soap, water, paper towel and toilet paper
  • the workplace is stocked with enough alcohol-based hand sanitiser to sustain the demand for increased employee hygiene

Managing psychosocial hazards from COVID-19

Employers should:

  • maintain regular communication with employees on how COVID-19 is being managed at the workplace and what controls are in place
  • ensure any changes to systems of work as a result of COVID-19 are well communicated and clearly understood by employees
  • keep up-to-date with information on COVID-19 and regularly share information with employees
  • proactively support employees who you identify to be more at risk of workplace psychological injury (for example, frontline employees or those working from home)
  • provide employees a point of contact to discuss any concerns
  • consider hiring security, and displaying signage aimed to deter potential customer abuse and violence

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

PPE can complement other control measures in place to protect against the transmission of COVID-19 at a workplace including good hygiene measures, physical distancing, environmental cleaning and providing workers with information and training on the purpose and correct use of PPE. Employers must implement control measures in addition to PPE to protect against COVID-19.

If employees are required to wear a specific face mask, it is an employer's responsibility to provide them to employees.

Additional PPE is not recommended unless the risk of COVID-19 transmission is determined to be high following a risk assessment. If it is determined that PPE is required, it must be provided to employees. Any PPE provided must fit correctly. Additional PPE that can assist with protecting employees from COVID-19 includes:

  • gloves
  • disposable respirators (compliant with Australian Standard AS1716) used by healthcare workers for protection from airborne exposure to COVID-19
  • screens
  • uniforms

Where PPE is provided to employees for controlling the risk of exposure, employers must ensure:

  • PPE is maintained in good working order
  • employees are provided information, instruction and training in the correct use of PPE

PPE should only be used in certain circumstances at the workplace.

Legal duties

Employers have duties under the OHS Act, which include that they must, so far as is reasonably practicable:

  • provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees and independent contractors, including psychological health
  • provide such information, instruction, training or supervision to employees and independent contractors as is necessary to enable those persons to perform their work in a way that is safe and without risks to health
  • monitor the health of employees
  • monitor conditions at any workplace under the employer's management and control
  • provide information concerning health and safety to employees, including (where appropriate) in languages other than English
  • ensure that persons other than employees of the employer are not exposed to risks to their health or safety arising from the conduct of the undertaking of the employer
  • consult with employees and HSRs, if any, on matters related to health or safety that directly affect, or are likely to directly affect them

A person with management or control of a workplace must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the workplace and the means of entering and leaving it are safe and without risks to health.

Employees also have duties under the OHS Act, which includes that they must:

  • take reasonable care for their own health and safety
  • take reasonable care for the health and safety of persons who may be affected by the employee's acts or omissions at a workplace
  • co-operate with their employer with respect to any action taken by the employer to comply with a requirement imposed by or under the OHS Act